Knives Out (15)
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Review: Dave Stephens
Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned no-frills “Whodunnit” films and shows? Well… nothing really. They just evolved, and they’re still with us. Whether its movie adaptations of literary classics (like Ken Branagh’s recent reworking of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”), or modern TV dramas that prove to be global hits (think ITV’s “Broadchurch”), that classic chestnut of incognito criminal chicanery ain’t going anywhere anytime soon. As far as the horror genre goes, what are the four “Scream” movies and “Friday the 13th” (the 1980 original film), and pretty much every non-franchise slasher or Giallo film, if not gory-fied twists on a whodunnit formula? That self-indulgent preamble brings us to the latest big-screen interpretation of a classic murder mystery. This is Rian Johnson’s surprisingly well-received “Knives Out”, which got great word-of-mouth at TIFF and currently holds 96% on RT. The film was written and directed by Johnson, who came up with the idea of a contemporary whodunnit whilst working on his 2005 movie mystery “Brick”. It has (appropriately) a cast-list to die for, with many favourite genre character actors like Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Daniel Craig, and… we could go on. Now on release in the UK and USA cinema screens, YGROY takes a look at the film to see if it’s as good as the reviews say or just a bad case of Clue-D’oh!
It starts (unsurprisingly) with a death. World-famous crime-writer Harlan Thrombey (an ever-sprightly Plummer) is found in the study, with a knife and a slit throat, thought to be an act of apparent suicide. Cut to a week later, and Thrombey’s motley group of relatives have collected in his mansion to be questioned by the police. Kindly nurse Marta Cabrera (a rather good Ana De Armas) finds herself in the eye of a figurative hurricane as all the members of the Thrombey family are revealed to have good motives for doing away with the old codger. Private Detective Benoit Blanc (Craig, who actually seems to be enjoying himself for once!) is also convinced that there is more to the death than meets the eye, especially as he’s been hired by a mysterious benefactor to solve the case. Marta becomes Watson to Blanc’s Holmes, as the twisty path to the truth unravels and all is eventually revealed.
Make no mistake; the main thing to take away from this sly pastiche of detective stories is that… it’s just entertaining. (NB: No Spoilers coming up. We promise!). The cast seemingly has great fun playing the broad eccentric characters. There’s something particularly wonderful in seeing Collette play a vapid lifestyle guru (suspiciously close to Gwyneth Paltrow’s real-life persona we have to say) after all the heavy dramatic roles she’s had lately. Curtis is an ice-cold character and arguably the smartest one in the narrative; she impressively clock’s Blanc’s “baiting” methods straight away when no-one else does. Armas is wonderfully earnest and provides the strongest emotional scenes, and Chris Evans plays ambiguously against type. Craig is also the best he’s been for a while and has some real fun with the Southern Fried Detective (“CSI: KFC?” snarks Evans at one point), and it’s a performance where he genuinely seems to enjoy embodying the characteristics of the role. Refreshingly he’s not a “master” detective initially, and there’s more than a whiff of “Columbo” about him rather than “Poirot”, as he even plays up his version of “Just one more thing…” interruptions and detecting diversions. In fact, that’s probably a fair observation of the whole film.
The first shot screams Agatha Christie (old dark house, bounding black dogs, shrill violin music), but the cameo appearance of an episode of “Murder, She Wrote” is perhaps more telling. The plot makes (intentionally) hilarious use of ridiculous MacGuffins; a character who can’t tell a lie without vomiting, insanely squeaky floorboards, dogs playing fetch with crucial pieces of evidence, etc. It’s all overblown and slightly campy. It also goes into directions that you might not be expecting. An early revelation changes the emphasis of the narrative, and the twisty-turny plot makes efforts to play with your expectations. Having said that (still no spoilers!) the final solution is surprisingly straightforward and resists the urge to bamboozle you with unnecessary double-bluffs… just a nice play on words and a satisfyingly silly slo-mo sequence. There’s an odd sense of timelessness as well, along with vaping and weed, VHS cassettes and CDs still seem to be in heavy use in this timeline. (NB: This leads one character to make an on-the-nose comment about “The Ring”!). But this isn’t a silly satire in the style of “Murder by Death”. It’s a well-acted piece of entertainment, with the emphasis on homage and knowing nods rather than mockery of its subject matter.
Johnson also takes the opportunity to make some not-exactly-subtle digs at current society. There are some pot-shots at the current US (and UK to be fair) anti-immigration hysteria and a comment from Blanc about the ancestral house puts all that into context, as do some of the upfront attitudes… not to mention the rather odious alt-right character. But even if you ignore that element, the whole film zips through the motions very nicely indeed, and that 2hr+ running time seems just right. If there is a downside to the movie, it’s just that it’s ultimately not quite as clever as you think it might turn out to be and there’s definitely a slight case of style-over-substance as well. With that packed cast, some actors (like Stanfield and Riki Lindhome) barely get a line and could literally be edited from the film with no discernible impact. Other than that, it’s good playful fun that lovers of the crime genre will really appreciate and it’s nice to see original material like this turning up on the big screen and embraced fitfully by its cast. It’s not going to break box-office records, and it’s unlikely to find a core audience with the younger generation (Fact: At our packed screening there was no-one under the age of 40 years old!). But given that its major competition in theatres at the moment is “Frozen II”, that’s probably a good thing! It’ll be interesting to see the box-office that it does earn and the audience that it reaches. Personally we’d like to see further adventures of the Blanc-Man and more locked room murders in massive mansions with crackpot characters, but we’ll just have to wait and see.